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Getting the most from broadband connectivity with wireless networking.

During the past few years, small to mid-sized businesses are building and expanding their networks at record rates. Wireless networking, once a technology used mostly by the traveling executive to connect his notebook computer to the corporate network when at his desk, is playing a larger role today and broadband Internet access sharing is one of the driving factors. Internet connectivity is critical to small to mid-sized business success today. It provides a means for staying in touch with customers and vendors, for accessing important decision-making information and research, and it even provides a window through which to keep an eye on the competition. Access to efficient Internet connectivity-broad-band Connectivity--makes all of these tasks faster and easier. Wireless networking makes sharing broadband connections efficient and inexpensive--in out of the office.

Computing Power

Fueled by recent steep technology price drops, businesses of all sizes accelerated the pace of PC acquisition to make their employees more efficient. A desktop PC that cost $2000 three years ago costs something closer to $500 today, and the cost of portable PCs dropped even more dramatically, so businesses could reasonably provide more employees with computers for travel and work at home. Drilling holes in walls and running cables to add network connections, especially for sporadic use by portables--or in some cases, set ting up an entire network for the first time--still presented an obstacle for many small to mid-sized businesses. Floppy disks and CD-ROM--in some cases, even e-mail over analog dial-up--were often considered adequate, given the mess and expense of the alternative.

Crowded Lines

With each new PC added to the office needing Internet access for e-mail, research and collaborative activities, the numbers don't have to be large before dial-up stops making sense. Overloaded PBXs and busy signals don't make for good business, so using dialup for Internet access is untenable for businesses, even where a local area network (LAN) is already in place, because in an analog modem environment, each computer requires its own, dedicated connection.

The Critical Leap: Shared High-Performance Internet Access

The advent and proliferation of broadband Internet access brought unbelievable performance gains: no more waiting for the dial-in process, faster navigation and quicker downloads. It also brought security concerns. For small businesses, cable and DSL service providers typically installed simple modems for single computer 'always-on' Internet connection, and stressed the need for security precautions to protect the PC and its resident business critical data.

The need for multiple workstation connectivity combined with the need for security pointed directly to the LAN. To add security, businesses would add a firewall/router--the leap from there to networking the office is not a large one, as most routers carry multiple Ethernet ports. By tapping into that router's capability, businesses found that they could both share broadband connections and have the traditional benefits of file and peripheral sharing over a LAN. While the less convenient but viable 'sneaker net' option for file sharing had filled the gap in the past, there was no alternative for shared Internet access: broadband can be shared only with a network and, conversely, broadband is the only method for Internet access that can be shared over a network. The two technologies Iced each others' growth. With broadband subscription rates becoming more affordable, the subscriber base expanded, and with it came a resurgence of interest in networking.

A Whole New Way of Working

The early adopters of broadband Internet connectivity saw value in distributing that connectivity, and the development of the IEEE 802.11b standard for wireless networking brought a whole new way of connecting. With no holes in the drywall or cables to run through the office or across the building, wireless connectivity presented itself as a low-risk proposition, especially for small businesses. Over a very short period of time, price drops in wireless networking solutions contributed to its increasing accessibility. The growing popularity of wireless home networks makes providing employees with portable PCs equipped with wireless network adapters even more compelling--they can be more productive because they can tap into their home networks for off-hours broadband access.

Keeping it Simple and Secure

Today's cable or DSL modem not only brings the broadband connection into buildings, it often has the wireless router built right in. Many also have print servers and integrated switches to accommodate a few wired Ethernet connections in addition to providing wireless access--thanks to wireless networking technology, the cable modem hardware can serve as communications central for the office. Still, security and access control, coverage and ease of installation have been ongoing concerns for businesses considering wireless LANs. Today, sophisticated security is integrated into most wireless routers, providing SPI firewall protection, WEP and the new WPA encryption, MAC address filtering. Some even have integrated content filtering and virus protection software. Range of coverage varies, depending upon the technology used, and that can be extended via antenna, whether between or within buildings. Some individual network adapters even have optional or included antennas.

Broadband modems have evolved into easy-to-use communications gateways: multifunction modem/router/firewall/wireless access points that can be easily user-installed, thanks to foolproof one-click installation utilities like SMC's EZ Installation Wizard that's included with all of the company's wireless networking products. At the same time, broadband providers' ability to support the connections has improved as well, in the form of better remote troubleshooting capability.

Connectivity Options Heat Up

Public broadband access via wireless is not only a boon to business travelers and lunchtime workaholics, it's an interesting business opportunity in itself. Internet access via so-called 'hotspots' in hotels, airports, convention centers, coffee shops, restaurants and more is a fast-growing trend. According to In-Stat/MDR, the worldwide for-fee hotspot market will grow more than tenfold between 2002 and 2007--from 12,235 locations to 145,417 worldwide.

Hotspots are simply Internet access for hire. While in some places free access is offered as a marketing tool, most often users pay a fee to sign-on, registering with a service provider like Wayport, STSN, T-Mobile or any of hundreds of others, upon sign-on. Relatively economical to set-up, all that's required to create a simple hotspot is a broadband connection and a wireless router; the addition of billing and authentication software can make the hotspot a profit-maker. Many hotspots use T-1 for its high bandwidth, but DSL, cable and fixed wireless can also be used. Some hotspots restrict access to users with 802.11b wireless adapters, but today's 802.11a/g Universal wireless connectivity solutions are a better choice, opening up connectivity to users with any current standards-compliant wireless adapter, whether 802.11g, 802.11a or 802.11b.

Wireless and Broadband

Prices for both the broadband modem hardware and subscriptions have dropped, as has the price of building a wireless network, making shared broadband affordable for more businesses. Price points in wireless networking technology have achieved a level that makes it practical for vendors to embed wireless technology in not only PC's, but in other office equipment, like printers, scanners and more.

Chip technology and the accompanying software and firmware are evolving, too, to keep up with wireless bandwidth demand increases that are required for demanding applications requiring audio and video. By way of example, new technology from Texas Instruments that SMC is using in our broadband routers, called TurboDOX Bandwidth Acceleration Software, increases the capacity for cable operators while making the end-user's Internet experience better at the same time with as much as a 20-times increase in wireless Bandwidth.

Here to Stay

Wireless Networking Wireless networking is attractive to businesses because it provides the ultimate in mobility, simple and flexible installation options, low cost of ownership (no cabling costs or maintenance), and excellent scalability. In today's mobile business environment, a system that allows users to easily add devices to the network by simply plugging-in a wireless adapter is extremely appealing. The potential for increased productivity is enormous--in the conference room, in the airport, in the coffee shop, or at home. The affordability and mass appeal of wireless networking is creating further demand for small to mid-sized business network expansion and for broadband as the Internet access medium for the networked business.

RELATED ARTICLE: Demystifying the standards.

802.11b--also known as WiFi, currently the most commonly-used wireless technology. It operates in the 2.4 GHz band with 11 Mbps transmission (with a fallback to 5.5, 2 and 1 Mbps).

802.11a--often chosen for its bandwidth advantages over 802.11b, it operates at 54Mbps in the 5GHz band, but has a shorter distance capability.

802.11g--incorporating some of the advantages of 802.11a and 802.11b, 802.11g was ratified on June 12, 2003 by the IEEE. It provides 20+ Mbps in the 2.4 GH band, and can communicate with 802.11b legacy equipment as well as with other 802.11g devices.

DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification)--the CableLabs Certified Cable Modem project, which defines interface requirements for cable modems involved in high-speed data distribution over cable television system networks.

Tony Stramandinoli is director of marketing at SMC Networks (Irvine, Calif.)
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Title Annotation:Internet
Author:Stramandinoli, Tony
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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